Tongue-tied UK? Speak for yourself

Two eminent figures have recently issued a familiar challenge to UK plc. Will Hutton writes powerfully in the Guardian: “The crisis in our foreign language studies is part of something much larger and why the coalition government’s rhetoric and programme are so very, very misguided. There is a poverty of vision about what Britain needs to be – apart from a country that balances its public finances and says boo to foreigners.”

And in the current Times Higher Education magazine, Sir  Adam Roberts, as befits his position, is keen to reinforce the value of studying the humanities (including languages) and social sciences: “In a fast-changing world, the flexible skills offered by rigorous study in the humanities and social sciences are of enormous value, and this will be understood in time”. Amen to that.

Why does they feel the need to comment? Well, the number of UK university applicants is down by 7.4 per cent relative to this time last year. This, Roberts states, “will reinforce certain worries about the new funding regime – especially as they affect the teaching of languages”. In particular, applications to European language courses are down by 11.2 per cent and those to non-European languages are down by 21.5 per cent: both decreases are well above the average decline across all subjects.
Here we go again, eh? Why is that, even when the arguments are articulated in every language known to humankind, in the UK the message does not seem to register that it is massively in the national interest to ensure the sustainable, high-quality linguistic capability of our population (and especially our workforce)?

If the splendidly isolationist English-is-enough position beloved of many Britons were ever plausible, it is becoming less so by the day. Why? Because linguistic power goes hand-in-hand with economic strength. Hutton has it exactly right: the waning dominance of Europe and North America in the global marketplace will, as night follows day, be associated with a realignment of linguistic pre-eminence.

Any sociolinguist worth their salt can tell you this. What happened to Cornish? The money moved to the capital cities and those who wanted to earn it needed to adapt to metropolitan language practices. So it will be on the global scale: for Cornish, read English; for London, read China.

When did we become so blinkered about the needs of the economy – “look after the STEM subjects, they’ll drive regeneration” is a message we hear like a broken record – and so complacent about language? Even the much-derided Research Excellence Framework in the UK’s universities recognises that 20% of the value of research is associated with its impact – and how will you generate impact without communicating the benefits of your work to purchasers in a language they understand?

What’s more, if we need new ways to stimulate the global economy (and we plainly do), and if there is any relationship between language and thought (and there plainly is), then understanding how different languages are used in and for the process of thinking must be utterly vital to planning for the world ahead.

It’s a big world and we need to talk with it and think with it. Humans learn languages best in their youth. There’s more to life (and to business) than STEM. No-one should need to spell out what we have to do: it speaks for itself.

Author: Graham Turner